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After Wisconsin, Questions of Whether to Recall Walker Narrow the Possibilities

Obviously, the Wisconsin recalls cast a pall over the Netroots Nation event. I didn’t have to go to the recall recap panel (it was at the same time as my foreclosure panel) to get a wide variety of opinions on what happened, including perhaps the most perceptive comments from former Sha Na Na frontman John “Bowser” Bauman, who can drill down into granular district-level data for you if you like.

I heard arguments that Wisconsinites had a high standard for recalling which Scott Walker never met. I got an earful about money, coming from unlimited donations to Walker (Tom Barrett’s donations were limited) as well as from outside groups. I heard that the time frame from the February uprising was too long, the policy of stripping collective bargaining rights wasn’t targeted as much as an individual was (a tougher sell, in this theory), that Wisconsinites were just tired of recalls. I’ve heard, from myself, that the effects of the rights-stripping Act 10 on public unions in Wisconsin, which already lost a lot of members, meant that less money would be available for a recall effort. And some of the brighter-side folks said that Democrats recaptured the state Senate, so it was all worth it. Of course, that state Senate will never again convene, until November, when new Republican-drawn districts come into play (for the record, Bowser thinks that the Democratic majority is still safe, though others disagree).

The thing is, all of these were known factors before the recall ever started. You knew Walker would massively outraise the opponent, and that he would have the ability to capture unlimited funds. You knew the time frame issues, the high bar for recalls, the fact that Barrett was a less-than-ideal messenger on collective bargaining given his bouts with unions. So it all begs the question of why put forward a recall in the first place?

Rachel Weiner gets at this question, and relays something I heard over the weekend as well, that the national unions really didn’t want any part of a recall, but the locals forced it on them:

But did they have a choice? Some national labor officials say they tried to dissuade Wisconsin unions and activists from going ahead with the recall campaign and simply could not […]

“There’s this notion out there that unions are hierarchical,” said one labor official. “Labor has its own culture, and its extremely democratic.” If the national labor union had tried to stop the recall, added the source, “it would have been a bloodbath.”

Added a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees: “With apologies to the arm-chair quarterbacks in DC, we didn’t have the opportunity to run the passion of over 100,000 grassroots protesters through a DC focus group. Wisconsin was and remains a grassroots movement. Anyone who second guesses what happened doesn’t understand that crucial fact.”

This may be true and it may also be the case that it’s something you highlight after you lose. But there’s no doubt that “recall Walker” was on the minds of local unions from the very beginning, and that the nationals had little recourse at that point. If they tried to bigfoot in and stop a local-led movement for the recall, it would have been chaotic to say the least. [cont’d.]

I do think this artificially narrows the question, however, into “recall Walker” or “don’t recall Walker,” when there was an additional option out there, one of resistance and strikes and organizing, that was actively suppressed and channeled into electoral politics. This was obviously disadvantageous because of the campaign finance rules and general difficulties of winning a recall.

Andy Kroll, who was up in Wisconsin last February along with me, puts this together in a piece for Tomdispatch:

The energy of the Wisconsin uprising was never electoral. The movement’s mistake: letting itself be channeled solely into traditional politics, into the usual box of uninspired candidates and the usual line-up of debates, primaries, and general elections. The uprising was too broad and diverse to fit electoral politics comfortably. You can’t play a symphony with a single instrument. Nor can you funnel the energy and outrage of a popular movement into a single race, behind a single well-worn candidate, at a time when all the money in the world from corporate “individuals” and right-wing billionaires is pouring into races like the Walker recall.

Colin Millard, an organizer at the International Brotherhood of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Iron Workers, admitted as much on the eve of the recall. We were standing inside his storefront office in the small town of Horicon, Wisconsin. It was night outside. “The moment you start a recall,” he told me, “you’re playing their game by their rules.”

I want to be clear on what Kroll is saying. The goal here could not have been to move directly to a general strike, which was also very loudly discussed in Madison last February. There are federal legal barriers to secondary strikes, which Act 10 in Wisconsin actually strengthened. While teachers did carry out illegal strikes during the uprising, as I wrote last March, a firing provision was inserted into the collective bargaining bill:

In the Legislative Financial Bureau’s memo on modifications to SB 11, page 16, there is a provision titled “Discharge of State Employees.” It states that under current law, “the Governor may issue an executive order declaring a state of emergency for the state or any portion of the state if he or she determines that an emergency resulting from a disaster or imminent threat of a disaster exists.” Remember that the Wisconsin Republicans have shown a disturbing penchant for complying with existing law in the most limited sense. In the event of a Governor declaring a state of emergency, the new SB 11 would allow an appointing authority to discharge any employee who fails to “(a) report to work for any three days during the state of emergency, (b) participates in a strike, work stoppage, sit- down, stay-in, slowdown, or other concerted activities to interrupt the operations or services of state government.” There is a clear coordination between the language used to vilify those exercising their 1st amendment rights and the language used to activate this provision. The Republicans very clearly are interested in giving Governor Walker the ability to wield unreasonable, unprecedented power.

Walker could basically have fired all workers, using an executive order, if they decided to engage in a general strike. This would be in the model of Walker’s hero, Ronald Reagan, firing all the air traffic controllers because of an illegal strike. I have no doubt he would have done it. For this and a bounty of other reasons, organizing this kind of walkout is tremendously hard, as anyone who has tried would tell you.

But this assumes that the only option outside of electoral politics was a general strike. The populist movement that arose from the uprising could have used every dollar given to a politician or an outside campaign spending group and used it in community-based organizing. We could have seen well-funded nonviolent actions. We could have seen education campaigns, going door to door with a message rather than an ask to support Tom Barrett or whoever else. We could have seen economic boycotts on Walker-supporting businesses. We could have seen more organizing into broad coalitions around the idea of repealing the rights-stripping collective bargaining law. We could have seen an insurgent movement, one that captured the energy of the uprising rather than re-channeled it.

It may not have been successful. But of course, neither was the recall. And at least it would have left something tangible in its wake, a strengthened bond of connections between people fighting for the dignity of work and their own rights. Unions are in too much of a weakened state to do this work on their own. An outside movement can help them. But it has to work with what energy it has, without grafting on this electoral angle.

David Dayen

David Dayen